Monday, October 5, 2015


Thoughts on Tropical Urbanism

Most architects tend to see water as a vertical element from which to screen their work and also as to how to effectively use the screen as a design-delight. Relish it, for it is a tangible and basic reality which needs to be addressed boldly.

Water also begs to be seen as multiple and horizontal layers too, especially when viewed through the prism of Urbanism, as a form of geological sheet on which society has driven in its tent-pegs. We have settled on a sub-soil mesh of land and water, where the life giver is water. So, cities when planned or urban centres when redeveloped need to first recognize this under-lying system and the pattern of its organization.

Ecological Planning does address this concern at a very large scale. There are studies, for example, on the carrying capacity of the Vembanad Backwater system, from which to deduce the scale and extent of possible urban settlement. However, while we quantum leap down in scale from that regional level to the say, "campus plan" scale, the lines and relationships of water system do not inform the process of site planning beyond the extents of the "site" in the purview of the architect.
In other words, there exists a deep disconnect in addressing this primary issue at the intermediate scales that vary from above large architectural project sites,
  • to large campuses like the Special Economic Zones or Techno-parks etc,
  • to public-place-architecture like markets, mobility hubs etc,
  • to city ward level redevelopment plans like Detailed Town Planning (DTP) Schemes (which are actually Urban Design or Urban Land Pooling/ Reconstitution Schemes),
  • to city scale development agenda.
Of these, architects have a compelling role in at least the first two scales and the power to influence the remaining scales too. Each of these scales inform the nature and content of the ones above and below it.

In the realm of public-place-architecture, there is the need to create a value base, as a resource for the architect. The two year agenda set by this team needs to build such a referral base.

In rain-fed tropics, buildings need to stand apart to be climatically appropriate, but then, they also need to bridge distances in the extraneous spaces they tend to create between them, for healthier urban place-making. This pattern of conflicting energies, that both pull and push the distance between buildings, need to be tamed. The management of this duality of the need to come-together while going-apart is to be moulded by a more studied approach.

Improving walk-ability within our urban centres is a great challenge and in that regard, some topics that can be explored may include:
  • Roof spans in timber for public walkways, and public forum (how to cover large areas using timber space-frames)
  • Free public umbrellas
  • Tree cover
  • Stretched canvas (which can be hooked and unhooked as needed)
  • Identifying the width of pedestrian pathways of various scale, when people use open umbrellas
  • Architects have already invented some elements as tools of the trade; like the pergola with a sheet of glass over them. Serious refinement is possible through research.
  • Clothes form our first layer and hence, appropriate clothing like knee-length formals

In the tropics, the focus needs to be on the roof and not the walls. This notion extends and permeates both architecture and public place design.

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